A National Leader on Youth and Violence
Reflections on the White House Strategy Session on Children, Violence and Responsibility
By Sharon Sayles Belton,
On behalf of the US Conference of Mayors, I was honored to represent mayors across the country at the Presidents White House Strategy Session on Children, Violence and Responsibility. I want to thank President Clinton for giving us the opportunity to be a part of this significant discussion.
The three-hour session brought together religious leaders, gun manufacturers, the entertainment industry, teachers, youth serving organizations, health care providers, and on-line services, among others, to discuss strategies for creating what the President called a "grass roots, national campaign," to reduce youth violence.
As Chair of USCMs Youth Violence Task Force, I came to the strategy session with our National Action Plan on School Violence and Kids from 2-8 p.m. The plan was adopted by the USCM it its historic National Summit in Salt Lake in September 1998, attended by US Attorney General Janet Reno.
In presenting the Action Plan, I reinforced the fact that there are great programs and strategies being implemented by mayors throughout the country and I told participants how to access our Best Practice Report through the USCM office or website.
I thought it was also important to emphasize that any national plan would be most effective and have the greatest chance of success if it was grounded in the grassroots, where we operate day to day. In other words, the USCM and the mayors they represent should continue to be at the table as the national plan evolves.
I emphasized the need for comprehensive social and recreational programs and I talked about our call for 100,000 youth counselors. I was not alone in acknowledging the need for more counseling, mental health and outreach services for young people.
Carl Bell, M.D., president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council and Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago, also underscored the need for more mental health workers. Tipper Gore gave an impassioned statement about our need to address the mental health of our nations children. To help meet this challenge, Mrs. Gore is hosting a White House Conference on the subject in June.
The USCM recommendation for 100,000 counselors has great potential to be picked up and promoted by others nationally if we advance it broadly to include mental health professionals, para-professionals and others trained to be available and responsive to our nations young people,. We must continue to lay the groundwork and build support to make it real.
Generally, participants agreed that more must be done. Maya Angelou said it best when she stated that "our children are enraged, depressed and angry."
Parental involvement was also a hot topic at the strategy session. Several participants talked about the fact that strong healthy families are key to healthy, socially adjusted children. We were reminded that a strong family relationship can counter much of the violence that is prevalent in our society.
Participants talked about the high incidence of family violence, including domestic violence and child abuse, and its impact on the lives of too many of our nations children. In talking about television, movie and video game violence, we must also be prepared to talk about the real violence that children witness and are victimized by each day.
Many parents dont have the skills or desire to be active participants in their childrens lives. It was especially disconcerting to be reminded that many of our parents are afraid of their children and literally do not know what to do or who to call for help. We know that family level interventions, such as early childhood education, home visits or parent effectiveness training, have a positive impact on reducing violence. Expanding and modifying these programs for application to older children might be worth pursuing.
Our enthusiasm for finding solutions was not at all hampered by the severity of the problem that we face in addressing youth violence. We also discussed examples of progress:
The V-chip, which will be included in half the new televisions sold this year. Together with the voluntary rating system adopted by broadcasters, it will give parents more tools to screen what their children see.
A new Ad Council campaign, "Talking With Kids," designed to help parents and other adults reach out and communicate with adolescents.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who described the commitment of the motion picture industry to work harder to address the gratuitous violence that we see too often in films.
We left the meeting inspired to work with the President and develop a national response that will help put an end to youth violence.